Solving threat of hunger for rich may starve the poor

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Saudi Gazette | 23 April 2009

Patrick Seale

OVER one billion people go hungry every day – that is to say, one sixth of the world’s population of 6.5 billion. They are not just hungry from time to time. They are chronically hungry. They can never find enough food to feed their children or meet their own needs. And their number is growing.

What is the world doing about it? The answer is very little

The problem is too big, too widespread and – and also, in a sense, too slow moving – for governments of rich countries to give it the priority it evidently deserves. World hunger did not feature among the top concerns of the G20 at their recent summit meeting in London.

Yet, it is beginning to be realized that the problem of food security poses a real threat to global stability. Meeting in Italy last weekend, agriculture ministers of the G8 industrialized countries recognized the extent of the problem. They pledged to continue fighting hunger. But beyond calling for increased public and private investment in agriculture, the final communiqué of the ministerial meeting was short on fresh proposals. The only good news was the announcement by the Obama Administration that it would double US aid to agriculture in poor countries to $1bn next year.

In the wings of the meeting in Italy, the US agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told the Financial Times, “This is not just about food security. This is about national security. It is about environmental security.” The issue, he said, should become “an issue that is front and central in international discussions.” In spite of these bold words, there was no sign of concerted action by the G8 countries.

The ministers had before them a report prepared by the Italian presidency which warned that, if widespread starvation was to be avoided, global agricultural output had to double by 2050 – when the world’s population would reach a staggering 9 billion. The report called for “immediate interventions”. But nothing immediate was suggested.

When prices of agricultural commodities surged in 2007-2008, some 30 countries – from Haiti to Egypt to Bangladesh – were shaken by food riots. Illegal migration to Europe increased from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, regions particularly hard hit by soaring food prices. Piracy off the Somali coast captured the world’s attention, but few were prepared to recognize that its roots lay in poverty.

During the height of the food scare a year ago, leading food exporting countries, such as India and Argentina, imposed bans on overseas sales, but this only served to disrupt existing trade patterns, increasing the fears of importing countries.

Many diverse factors lie behind the worldwide increase in hunger. They include a soaring world population, which is said to be increasing by 80 million a year; a shortage of water and arable land, notably in the dry Middle East; highly volatile food prices; financial constraints which prevent some governments from continuing to subsidize food prices at former levels; a flight of young people from the land; and – that new and terrifying imponderable – climate change.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that an injection of 30 billion euros a year into family farming across the world could hold hunger in check, and even reverse it. But the FAO appeal has largely fallen on deaf ears.

As collective action by world powers is unlikely, countries with the means to do so are outsourcing the problem of food security by buying or leasing vast tracts of arable land outside their borders.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has already secured 1.6 million hectares of agricultural land in Indonesia. As it is phasing out its own wheat production to conserve finite water resources, it is planning to invest heavily in agricultural projects abroad. A state-owned organization – the Saudi Company for Agricultural Investment and Animal Production, with an initial capital of $800m – is trying to interest private Saudi investors in foreign farm projects by providing credit and by negotiating deals with Australia and Argentina, as well as with countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Many such contracts have been concluded or are in prospect. Something like a worldwide scramble for land is taking place. The United Arab Emirates has secured 1.3 million hectares overseas, mainly in Sudan and Pakistan. Indeed Pakistan, according to a Reuters report this week, has offered to sell or lease large tracts of farmland to countries anxious to secure their food supplies. Qatar has land holdings in Indonesia; Kuwait has similar holdings in Burma; while Libya is about to sign a large contract for farmland in Ukraine. Jordan has set its sights on Sudan.

South Korea – a resource-poor but heavily populated country – has acquired over one million hectares in Sudan, Mongolia, Indonesia and Argentina. However, there were violent protests in Madagascar when it was announced that the Daewoo group had leased 1.3 million hectares in that country – so these investments are not always popular with the locals. Just last week, the Financial Times reported that another South Korean company, Hyundai Heavy Industries, planned to lease 50,000 hectares of farmland in Russia’s far-east.

China, too, has long been interested in the undeveloped lands of Russia’s far-east. According to the French daily Le Monde, between 400,000 and 700,000 Chinese peasants have already settled permanently in that Russian region, which is geographically closer to Beijing than to Moscow.

As China wrestles with huge and expanding food needs, it is estimated that a million Chinese peasants might find their way to Africa over the next year or two. Peking has already set up 14 experimental farms in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Tanzania.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, China feeds 20 percent of the world’s population with just 10 per cent of the world’s agricultural land and about six per cent of the world’s water resources. It is, however, mostly self-sufficient in rice, wheat and corn – a remarkable achievement which many countries might envy. It is investing heavily in agricultural research and in infrastructure to increase productivity per hectare.

One of the problems of these new semi-colonial plantations is that much of the food produced there will naturally be exported to the countries that put up the money – to China, South Korea and the Arab world – rather than consumed where the food is produced. This might actually lead to increased food scarcity in the host countries where the projects are located. Large-scale foreign-owned farms could also threaten the lives of native farmers, now working the land. Often without title to ownership, they face the threat of expulsion by the newcomers.

Feeding the rich might end up starving the poor.
Original source: Saudi Gazette
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